I believe it would be fair to say everyone has a different impression of the Taj Mahal upon actually visiting because she presents herself in a different way to each different visitor. In pictures, I’ve always seen the calm, peaceful, deserted Taj Mahal with clear skies and untouched water. When I visited, I saw her on a relatively cloudy day with so many people I swore everyone was duplicating themselves multiples times once passing through the gates. Upon first glimpse, I was almost thinking “That’s not the Taj Mahal.” Rahul and I stopped to take pictures once entering, which every other tourist did as well. So if we took too long trying to get a shot wrong, or just stood in the same spot for too long, we would get shoved, slowly edged out of our spot, crowded, and number of things that would drive even the most weathered travelers mad.
But after moving away from the crowd clumps (appropriate term for where the highest amount of tourists would congregate, like ant hill mounds) and after taking a few moments to really let it sink in that I was staring at the Taj Mahal, it hit me: I was standing in front of probably the greatest testament of one person’s love for another that the world has ever seen.
Just a quick history lesson on the Taj Mahal; it was built by the Mughul ruler Shahjahan in the 1600s after his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, passed away giving birth to her 14th child at the age of 38 (she was getting busy to have had 13 children by 38). He wanted her burial place to be as beautiful as their love for each other, and so he had the Taj Mahal constructed. It took 20 years to build, and Shahjahan was overthrown and imprisoned by his son after its completion, spending the rest of his life in Agra Fort, only able to see his wife’s burial place at a distance.
Shahjahan also desired to be buried next to his wife, who is placed in the exact center of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is the greatest example of Mughul architecture, and the Mughuls were really big on symmetry and geographical shapes. The Taj Mahal is actually the exact same from all four sides, making it look like a little box with a building in the middle of it from a distance. Mumtaz’s tomb is in the exact middle of the Taj Mahal with Shahjahan’s tomb placed sloppily beside it, the only thing not symmetrically perfect in the whole grounds.
While the purpose for the Taj Mahal’s construction is amazing, so is the amount of people who come to visit it every year. We took an early morning train from Delhi to Agra. We arrived in Agra around 8 AM and were immediately followed for around five minutes by a cab driver vying for our business. We took an auto instead, dozens of them lined up near the train station waiting for business—surely more often than not tourists wanting to be taken to the Taj Mahal. We got there early enough that we didn’t have to wait in line at the South Entrance (by far the most beautiful entrance), which was packed with people trying to enter when we left. One of the things tour guide books warn against is fake tour guides—people who will promise a tour of the Taj Mahal, ask for payment, and then take off. We saw this happen to a few tourists when we were leaving but, the tourists caught on to the scheme before the fake tour guide could play the vanishing game.
All these people have to go somewhere, thus sprinkling themselves on the grounds of the Taj Mahal, pushing their way through the inside mausoleum, taking turns snapping pictures in the popular spots, congregating in large groups from spot to spot to spot. We had a joke going on while we were there about the “bros” at the Taj Mahal, as there was an alarming amount of teenage Indian boys wondering in clumps, as if scoping out the area for ladies.
Once getting past the crowds, I was able to appreciate more the wonder of the monument, and the hundreds of other people there became not an annoyance but another component of the majesticness of the Taj Mahal. The white marble looms over the surrounding gardens and fluid crowds. The first sighting almost doesn’t even make sense, the sight of the structure confirming its almost mythical existence. The Taj Majal was something we learned about every year in school and so to be standing in front of it was unreal. And it did feel unreal, for a moment, until I acknowledged the fact that this crowded, hot, sunny Taj Mahal I visited was the same Taj Mahal I had seen in dozens of pictures, and the same Taj Mahal now hanging in a picture in my own house.
An interesting article about the Taj Mahal in the Smithsonian Magazine: